Class Struggle Unionism: A specter to haunt the billionaire class

Alex Riccio argues Joe Burns’ latest book is powerfully inspiring but short on details.

With his third book, Class Struggle Unionism (Haymarket, forthcoming in 2022), Joe Burns has inked a holy trilogy for left-wing unionists. His first two books, Reviving the Strike and Strike Back, provided a persuasive argument for how militant, large-scale (illegal) strikes and forms of direct action built both private and public sector unionism in the United States. Nothing less than the return to these tactics, Burns argues, can rebuild the labor movement. In Class Struggle Unionism, Burns elaborates his concept of militant unionism, but withholds giving marching orders on the nuts and bolts of organizing class struggle unions. 

To revive labor militancy, Burns says, unions must understand themselves as the vehicle for waging class struggle against the ruling class where these two classes share no common interests. Animated by a spirit of class struggle, unions must be willing to fight for control over the shop floor, violate labor law, and generate working-class solidarity through engaging in open conflict with employers. A class struggle union embodies distinct characteristics from existing mainstream unions; namely, they will have to be run by workers, utilize tactics that emerge from the workplace, and act in opposition to any forms of oppression faced by the working class, particularly racism and sexism. 

Three approaches to rebuilding the labor movement

Since the turn of the century, at least three arguments have been popularized in union circles as to how to revive the labor movement. One calls for a “rank-and-file strategy” to overcome complacency in the higher ranks of organized labor. Socialists have no foothold within the labor movement, goes the claim, which enables bureaucratic and liberal interests to dominate existing unions. To spur labor’s revival, socialists must establish “transitional organizations,” such as reform caucuses, made up of rank-and-file members within trade unions to wage a “fight with the bosses…[and let] the [union’s] bureaucratic old guard get caught in the cross fire.”  

The second argument calls for “organizing the unorganized,” made popular in the 1990s by the “New Voice” slate helmed by former AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. Organized labor’s biggest problem is the continual decline in union density. Power is built through numbers, and when the overall number of union membership is low then we are unable to procure quality working standards across industries. Hence, with new organizing comes an increase in total union density which translates into more power. 

The final argument points out that the issue isn’t exclusively a matter of union leadership or union density, but that the types of unions we are building are insufficient for reviving the labor movement. This argument begins with the assertion that a singular model of unionism currently dominates the US and Canadian landscape. This model, often referred to as “business unionism” or “mainstream unionism,” is akin to a machine geared toward establishing legal recognition, securing labor peace through collective bargaining agreements with employers, and operating as a de facto extension of the Democratic Party. Even with more rank-and-file control or a bigger focus on organizing, the machine can only manufacture unions in this form. While such unions may marginally improve the material circumstances for their members, they cannot spark an insurgent movement of workers capable of fighting the ruling class. We need to build an entirely different type of machine, or perhaps many types of machines, in order to accomplish such a task. I refer to this as the “new framework theory,” and it has its own list of proponents. Popular versions include “social justice unionism” as theorized by Bill Fletcher Jr and Fernando Gapasin, and “solidarity unionism,” coined by veteran labor lawyer and historian Staughton Lynd and favored by members of the Industrial Workers of the World. 

Burns’ book invokes the third argument and poses “class struggle unionism” as the new framework we need for a fighting labor movement. “We are getting our asses kicked,” he says, and “we have no plan to revive the labor movement.” Therefore, “we need a new framework” to take on the “billionaire class” with a set of tactics, strategies, and vision to fight our rulers and win the class war. 

Class struggle unionism: A new old framework

Burns is not attempting to reinvent the wheel. Rather, he points us toward a form of unionism that once posed a real challenge to both the ruling class and business unions. Class struggle unionism, for Burns, encapsulated a particular spirit of unionism that burned bright in the early 20th century and in episodic spurts until the early 1990s, when, he laments, this spirit all but disappeared.

Class struggle unionism is defined most by how it contrasts with other forms of unionism, particularly what Burns calls “labor liberalism.” Impugning “business unionism” is a staple among union leftists and progressives, but for Burns it’s “labor liberalism” that is the primary foe for militant unionism.   

Labor liberalism is unionism wrapped in the rhetoric and garb of left-wing politics, without any of its substance. “For the last several decades,” according to Burns, “labor liberalism has been the dominant trend within the labor movement” embodied by leaders of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), such as Sweeney and Andy Stern, along with much of the labor press, union staffers, worker centers, and union-adjacent non-profits. It rose to prominence in the 1990s with the top priority of “organizing the unorganized,” “even at the expense of representing current members.” It is “now often focused on raising standards through government action.”  

To illustrate the contrasts with class struggle unionism and business unionism, Burns provides the following table in the book’s third chapter:

Business UnionismLabor LiberalismClass Struggle Unionism
ExamplesMany AFL-CIO unions from 1950s-1980s; current building trades; UAW; and many local unions and some international unionsSEIU, most workers’ centers, many central labor councilsCurrent UE, historic IWW, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Chicago Teachers Union, and left-led unions of the 1930s and beyond
Shop Floor OrganizationSome form of shop floor organization, although bureaucratic in natureMostly abandons the shop floor; centers unionism far away from the workplaceCore belief in shop floor organization
Union DemocracyAs unions, have elections of officers and procedures for strike votes, etc.; bureaucracy valued more than democracyLow priority, often more undemocratic than business unions; workers’ centers often lack formal democratic mechanisms of unionsCore belief in union democracy
Role of Middle ClassPath to the top often through the ranks; heavy reliance on professional staffLeading theorists and other leaders are middle class; expunges distinctions between middle-class activists and leadersCore belief in working class self-liberation
Organizing the UnorganizedLow priorityTop priority in the 1990s even at the expense of representing current members; now often focused on raising standards through government actionHigh priority, but not at the expense of enforcing existing agreements
Positions on Social IssuesOften centrist or conservativeProgressiveVery progressive/left wing
Conflict with EmployersDownplayed although could flare up; often favors labor-management cooperationWill use confrontational tactics to organize but then collaborate with employersHigh priority

A prime limit of labor liberalism is its understanding of power. Class struggle unionism begins with the straightforward analysis that there exists a “struggle between the two major classes in society, the working class and the owning class.” Burns explains, “Class struggle unionism is a form of unionism that challenges the control over our society but the supperrich — the handful of billionaires who own the vast majority of resources in the United States and the world.” It believes billionaires shouldn’t exist and begins its analysis by challenging the legitimacy of capitalism. 

Sad to say, in my own experience the above view of power is perceived as an anachronism in many union circles. Instead, what masquerades for a power analysis is the labor liberals’ vague notion that the issues plaguing society can be chalked up to “corporate greed” and individuals in positions of power possessing backwards personal worldviews. Therefore, the problems are purely ideological and their resolution can come about through expressing shared interests, electing better politicians, tinkering with labor law, and finding methods for collaborating across differences. Partly this thinking is shaped by the friends one keeps — as Burns notes labor liberals’ “close reliance on the Democratic Party allows the ideas of the billionaire class into the labor movement.” Having said that, much of Burns analysis is focused on billionaires — the big-picture goal is the “abolition of the billionaire class” — which it is hard to imagine most labor liberals disagreeing with. 

Due to their weak analysis, according to Burns, the organizing objectives for labor liberals are distinct from those of class struggle unionists. Labor liberalism does not view unionism as a struggle led by workers for control over the shopfloor, but as a process of locating solutions on behalf of the working class. Workers themselves, in the labor liberals’ mind, do not possess the capacity, skillset, or education to run their own unions. “Labor liberals seek to save workers;” writes Burns, which creates a union model heavy with professional staff — often from the ranks of the formally educated middle-class who have never worked in the industries they organize — bearing more in common with a non-profit fee-for-service than to a worker-led union. 

To revive the labor movement, labor liberals’ only strategy is to increase union density, or, as mentioned above, “organize the unorganized.” Left out of this equation is the question of what type of union are members joining? Is it a fighting union or milquetoast? Do members democratically run the union or do professional staff and a small sliver of elected officials call the shots? Does the union fight over wage issues alone or for control of the shop floor, including the length of the workday and pace of work?  

To Burns, all of the above questions are not even entertained under labor liberalism precisely because labor liberals have no political vision beyond hoping to blunt the sharp edges of capitalism. It is a brand of unionism that poses no threat to the ruling class or the union bureaucracy, but it does offer many tangible career paths for a strata of middle-class do-gooders. 

Class struggle unionism understands itself as a piece of the broader struggle to topple the system and replace it with a fundamentally different world. In this conception of unionism, a contract is a “temporary truce” with capitalists rather than the measure of power workers possess in a given industry; workers must be the leaders of their own unions while staff play a supporting role; and all tactics and strategies must originate from the shop floor. For Burns, the immediate task is to instigate this trend of unionism, anticipating that it will take decades to build.  

A specter haunting the billionaire class

Burns views class struggle unionism primarily as an intervention in the political imagination among unionists. It’s more a worldview than a practical guide to organizing unions, and in some instances suggests political vision is more necessary than honing union practice. Writes Burns, “[class struggle unionism] puts class struggle ideas in command, relies on inspiration rather than technique, and seeks conflict rather than creating organization.” I was reminded of Marx and Engels describing communism as a specter haunting the bourgeoisie. Burns seems more interested in conjuring the ghost of a bygone unionism rather than producing a handbook on how to build this presence. 

The book calls itself a “primer,” not a manual. After reading, I want the manual. No one should hold their breath, however. In Reviving the Strike, Burns dedicates an entire chapter to “Why Organizing Cannot Solve The Labor Crisis,” and in Class Struggle Unionism he sums up his position this way: 

Organizing skills matter, but left-wing trade unionism is not fundamentally about skills; it’s about putting trade unionism on a class struggle basis. We have entire industries unorganized, we don’t have enough resources, there are labor laws that prevent successful union strategies, and there is almost zero push for the militancy required. Better organizing techniques cannot resolve any of this. Not to be too harsh on today’s labor activists, but perhaps less organizing would be required if we actually had strategies that made sense to workers.

At this point, if Burns were to generate a how-to guide for organizing class struggle unions, it would be easy to label him a hypocrite. Perhaps Burns put himself in a bind by pushing so hard against the current fascination with organizing techniques. Whatever the reason, I can’t help but imagine that building any class struggle unions will require a lot of skill in addition to a strategic vision.  

A primary task for class struggle unionists, according to Burns, is to break free of labor liberalism. Though fully acknowledging how pervasive labor liberals are in the union ecosystem, Burns seems to underestimate labor liberals’ control over union resources and their influence on the would-be base of class struggle unionists. Class struggle unionism emphasizes conflict over building organization, but labor liberals have a roadmap to building organization through teachable techniques. In order to break from labor liberalism we’ll have to be able to organize better than the labor liberals that dominate staff positions, elected leadership, the labor press, and the legal teams that influence most union strategy. 

We know from Burns’ earlier writings that class struggle unions must be willing to violate labor law to change the course of unionism. That means having the capacity to conduct illegal strikes, withstand injunctions, prevent scabs from breaking picket lines, and finding ways to create worker-to-worker networks to spread these strikes. In other words, a lot of organizing techniques.   

What are the organizing methods for class struggle unionists? Are they effectively the same as other union activists, just animated by different political ideas? Or do they fundamentally require a different set of techniques to accomplish? 

Vision versus practice

The book’s concluding chapters center around big debates in left-wing union circles: 

Should we work in conservative business unions or establish new forms of organization? What is the role of middle-class socialists in the labor movement? Should folks take jobs on staff or rank and file? How should union militants relate to the union bureaucracy? Should the focus be on fighting the boss or reforming the union? How should we relate to progressive union officials?

Burns provides both the advantages and limits to each side of the debate. More decisively, he says class struggle unionists need to challenge the union officialdom by issuing aggressive demands on employers which will “end up isolating and exposing the union leadership who don’t want to fight.” The rank and file have more internal leverage to influence union ideas than middle-class staff, and what’s more staff shouldn’t drive strategies because “those who have never worked a real job don’t know the oppression of reporting to some dumbshit supervisor or following stupid work rules.” As well, “the task has to be to couple the influence of the existing labor movement along with the independence of alternative unionism.”  

Taken as a whole, Burns addresses the above questions by writing that without a vision of class struggle unionism, any attempts at resolving these debates simply fall short. An overarching vision of class struggle, again, is the key. But his primary tack is to avoid offering any hard answers, writing instead that “there are significant differences among class struggle unionists on key questions. That’s OK.”

Burns’ position on the political imagination is similar to Stanley Aronowitz, who describes unions in The Death and Life of American Labor as “institutions without a vision.” Aronowitz describes the emergence of industrial unionism as “a movement of a class that aspired to power over their own labor in the factory” animated by a conception of ‘the good life.’ “U.S. unions,” he laments, “have lost any semblance of this radical imagination, and so are generally unable to inspire working-class passion.” 

Being on staff inside a handful of unions has made me sympathetic to this argument. Take, for example, a common scenario in a union campaign where workers complain about being disciplined by a manager for returning a minute late from a scheduled break. Fellow staffers typically are quick to throw up their hands and inform these disgruntled workers that until legal recognition is won, and a collective bargaining agreement has been ratified, nothing can be done about the issue. 

While it may seem like not much is happening in this hypothetical, I’ve realized that here is precisely a moment which crystallizes the narrowed parameters of imagination that directly influence how mainstream unions respond to the needs of workers. As Aronowitz puts it, “they are imprisoned within the legal and imaginative limits imposed by the largest corporations and the state on permissible activity and ideological orientation.”

But changing the political imagination around unionism isn’t simply a matter of putting different ideas in people’s heads. Union practices, around such things as resolving issues like the one above through shop floor action rather than waiting for a formalized grievance procedure, can expand the imagination around what is perceived as possible and permissible.   

I don’t expect Burns to have the definitive answer to the key debates he identifies. But, the years I’ve spent in labor organizing is frankly rookie league compared to Burns’ nearly four decades, and I’ve already heard nearly every veteran unionist opt for Burns’ above stance that we can just keep plodding along without any concrete answers to these questions. As a younger labor organizer, I want someone with thirty more years of experience to just tell me what they think. Burns is hardly shy when lambasting labor liberal positions, so don’t put on the gloves now. 

Without providing any precise answers to these key questions, it becomes difficult to categorize “class struggle unions.” In fact, Burns briefly positions himself in sharp contrast to the vision of the IWW when he writes: “The point of unionism is to fight for better conditions for the working class – not to overthrow the capitalist system.” Despite this competing viewpoint with the infamous preamble of the IWW, Burns writes about the Wobblies with much affection throughout the book and lists them among the types of class struggle unions that he celebrates. 

Lumping various left-wing unions together — the IWW, Communist-led unions of the 1930s — creates a bit of a categorical mush, because if vision is the key element of distinction between class struggle unionists and labor liberals then these examples don’t provide any clarity on what that vision should be. It also leaves us wondering: what are the precise characteristics of class struggle unions?

Vision itself is likely insufficient to the task of building a trend of labor militancy. Easy enough to say that workers should lead unions, not staff, but what are the limitations that we’ll need to place upon staff to ensure they cannot gain power and influence over members? Burns says that a contract should be viewed as a “temporary truce” with capitalists, and that “all contracts include compromise.” Which compromises are acceptable is precisely the question we need to resolve. Do those compromises include no-strike and management rights clauses? Also, how temporary should the truce be? Is it a one-year truce or five years like current standards? Should workers wildcat during the life of the contract, putting the union in jeopardy? In short, is a shared vision over the role unions should have in fighting the class war enough to prevent unions from recreating the same practices as labor liberals? 

To be fair, Burns appears to agree that vision is not enough to set unions on a class struggle basis, suggesting that “the very tactics for class struggle unionism are the tactics that create militant consciousness.” While he opens up the debate on these key questions, he chooses not to try to resolve them and implies that once we begin utilizing class struggle tactics the debates will have a way of resolving themselves. 

I’ve got the light of class struggle unionism

I love Burns’ book. He writes in a pugilistic style free of jargon, and provides a crisp and clear analysis of labor liberalism’s shortcomings. Already I’ve begun referring to myself as a “class struggle unionist,” and have been telling younger workers they have the privilege of getting to choose to build these types of unions. The challenge I’ve had, however, is that when I impress upon these workers that they get to choose to build a class struggle union their ready response is: how? 

Dunking on liberals is fun, and I won’t begrudge anyone for making sport of this pastime. But it’s hard not to wonder if Burns had spent a little less time rebuking labor liberals for their preoccupation with organizing techniques if he’d then be inclined to propound more of the specifics of forming a class struggle union. Most of my gripes with the book, then, can be summed up as: tell me more. 

Alex Riccio is a labor organizer and host of the podcast Laborwave Radio.